Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Dovegreyreader has drawn my attention to a new book that's just come out, dedicated to one of my favourite things about London - blue plaques!!
Here's a little about the blue plaques. This is something I absolutely love about London - how every corner, it seems, houses a literary treasure. I love how this city celebrates it's history and culture, including the literature that it has inspired and the residents that created it.
Interesting that you must be dead to have a blue plaque erected in your honour. How did Monty Python get around that then?!
This was a coincidental and well-timed find, but whilst convalescing from the flu last week, I found a non-fiction piece I had started writing about eighteen months ago, which happened to feature some blue plaques. I never ended up sending it anywhere, so I thought I might as well hack up the carcass!
So, here are two stories, featuring how I discovered three blue plaques in my early days in London. The original piece was about me searching for my favourite writers who lived in London, including some for whom, when I found their places of residence, there wasn't a blue plaque in sight. But more about that later.
I have a few addresses scribbled on the back of a tube map. Fitzroy Road, Chalcot Square, Tite Street, Kensington Court Gardens, Keats Grove. I have been in London eight days. I haven’t got a job, I haven’t got a place to live, but I have been swimming in the Serpentine, seen a play at the Southbank, become a member of the British Library, and I know exactly what I’m going to do next.
I want to visit a friend of mine.
I emerge from Regent’s Park tube and walk, and keep walking, until I see greenery, greener than I could ever imagine for practically the centre of London. A stone church on the corner, covered in ivy, looks like it could be standing in a Yorkshire field.
I turn right and walk down Fitzroy Road.
I try to set the scene in my head. It’s February 1963. The coldest winter to hit London in nearly one hundred years. Pipes frozen, the streets smothered in heavy snow. Dark. Freezing. Imagine a young single mother with two tiny children, suffering from severe depression, but also writing the best poems she’s ever written in her life, the poems that would make her name.
Yes, I’m going to visit Sylvia Plath.
Initially, Plath was delighted to have moved into this flat on Fitzroy Road, following her traumatic separation from Ted Hughes. She had learned that W.B Yeats, a poet she much admired, had lived in the same flat and she believed it was a “good omen” and would augur well for her future output as a poet. When she moved in there, in October 1962, she was at the peak of her craft, churning out a poem a day, each one more dense and beautiful than the last. The poems we all know – “Daddy”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Edge”, “Medusa” – were all written in that flat, as the pipes were freezing and the snow was falling around her.
Even though it’s summer, a shiver goes through me as I walk closer. In this flat there was strength. There was creation, and beauty.
It was also the flat where she died.
I’ve waited a long time for this moment. I can only imagine the slipperiness of the icy stairs, the clouds of cold breath as she laboured away at the desk, where the first pages of Ariel were born.
I have to stand, and gaze, ignoring the scaffolding that’s there, obstructing the blue plaque paying homage to Yeats’s residency in this building. Originally, English Heritage were going to put one here for Plath as well, but her daughter, Frieda Hughes, quite rightly pointed out that the blue plaque should commemorate her mother’s happier moments in London at the house in Chalcot Square, where Frieda herself was born in April 1960.
So, next stop, once I’ve fully absorbed the moment at Fitzroy Road, is Chalcot Square. It’s an exquisite cul de sac, every house painted the colour of an Easter egg – pink, yellow, lilac.
It’s not something you’re ever prepared for, I don’t think. Some people eagerly await the day they might meet their favourite football star, the day they might catch a glimpse of a Hollywood movie star in the line at Starbucks or sitting in some impossibly chic bar. For me, this was the ultimate. Standing at Sylvia Plath’s front gate. Feeling my footprints melt into hers, where she would have stood over forty years ago, baby Frieda on her hip, groceries and flowers in a wicker basket, a kerchief knotted about her shoulders. And possibly the lines of “Morning Song” forming in her head…..
I sit in a pub later, with a dear friend, drinking Pimms and dipping crispy whitebait into a tangy Bloody Mary-like sauce, and we drink a silent toast, to Sylvia.
I have met someone wonderful. No, not a dead poet.
Tonight, he’s taking me to meet his parents. It’s been a while since I last met anyone’s parents, and I’m rather nervous. He senses this, and gently places a comforting hand on my knee, or holds my hand as he changes gears, as the car glides through the streets of Chelsea. Well, stops and starts would be a more accurate description of our journey. It’s bedlam on a Saturday night.
The traffic is, in fact, so slow, that my love’s face lights up with a plan, and immediately he takes another turn, away from the jam, and into a rather secluded street, where everything is veiled with rosy twilight. There is hardly anyone around. And then I see a blue plaque on one of the rusty bricked terrace houses.
“Do you know who we’ve come to visit?” he asks, his eyes sparkling.
Immediately, I know. This is a writer we both love, and whom we bonded over the night we first met in Notting Hill just over a month ago. I revealed that I had, ashamedly, left my copy of his complete works behind in Australia, such were the restrictions on the weight of my backpack.
We’re at Number 34 Tite Street. The home of Oscar Wilde.
The sky darkens as we get out of the car and stand outside, gawking. I love it when people leave their curtains open at night – I see floor to ceiling bookshelves inside number 34, of which I think Oscar would have approved. I run my hand along the bricks, and can see quite clearly in my mind’s eye Oscar on the threshold, with his new bride Constance Lloyd, when they first moved into the house in 1884.
This is the house where he wrote, with the exception of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, the works that he is best known for, including The Happy Prince, The Picture of Dorian Gray and, of course, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The image that haunts me the most about 34 Tite Street is the one of Oscar’s lover and friend (and later literary executor), Robert Ross, racing up to the house upon hearing the guilty verdict of “gross indecency”, and desperately salvaging as many of his papers as he could, knowing that as soon as court was adjourned, the house would most likely be pillaged of such treasures.
Again, it is a surreal moment for me. Somehow, in their words, writers seem so real to me, and yet so elusive. Regardless of whether they’re long dead or still walking around, their words bring them to life for me. Some of them I consider, in a strange psycho-literary way, friends, as I’ve read everything they’ve ever written or that’s been written about them. I even wrote a play once about this phenomenon, about a girl who is convinced Sylvia Plath is her best friend (and no, it’s not based on a true story!).
But when I am faced with bricks and mortar, the very place where they stood, lived, loved, and wrote - it’s like I’m hovering in a space where time no longer exists.
I am there, and they are there.